Survival and Its Distinctions

Continuing to read David Hinton’s book about the poet Tu Fu, Awakened Cosmos, I get to a poem in which Tu, on the run with his family from the armies that rebel against those who have been his patrons, writes about being in a boat on a river very early one morning. It’s a short poem, four lines in English or 28 characters in Chinese. Nothing much happens: the moon shines on the river, the egrets sleep, a fish jumps. Hinton reminds us throughout the book that in Tu’s Chinese there is no personal pronoun, no I. So it’s not Tu that sees these things; rather, they happen, and he is there but not as the sort of subjectivity that an English language poem would virtually require. Not as a presence distinguished from absence.

Hinton comments: “In evolutionary terms, language enables us to make the distinctions that help us to survive more successfully. Tu’s own struggle with survival, and that of his war-torn country, echoes behind the poem’s image-complex. And yet, in this moment of reprieve, those distinctions essential to survival begin blurring, a blurring that carries us into profoundly ontological depths” (87). For someone trying to do what this blog calls vulnerable reading, those couple of sentences overflow, which takes us back to the title of the poem, “Brimmed Whole”, or Hinton’s literal translation of the Tu’s title, “brim-over complete”.

Vulnerable reading is for moments of reprieve, not for the times of being in flight. It’s about being in those moments, not so much using them as being able to inhabit them fully. In such moments of reprieve, when the flight is both close behind and awaiting ahead, “those distinctions essential to survival begin blurring.” I’ve written about holding one’s own in life. Illness is one of those conditions that makes us self-conscious of how we are always holding our own. We hold our own through distinctions. I remember when I had cancer–so long ago now–how I had to learn to distinguish between what I needed, what sustained me, and what torn me further down. That might be food or different people’s companionship. It might be chairs or clothes. Or it might be thoughts, imaginations, day-dreams of future possible scenarios. I had to learn to make distinctions between whose words I would take seriously and which words I regarded as bizarre curiosities, perhaps to be used later in something I might write. Healthcare professionals were distinguished between the nurturing, the merely useful, and the toxic. Survival depends on making distinctions and finding ways to act on those distinctions.

But then, as Hinton writes, distinctions blur. Here is the Tao of Tu Fu, or anyone holding their own. We need distinctions but we eventually need to get past them, because living in a world of distinctions is ultimately false, even insidious. Tu, in wartime, needs to distinguish places that are safe from those that are unsafe. But he equally needs to recall, in moments of reprieve, that all these places take form from the same formlessness. Distinctions are not an illusion, but they are not fundamental either.

All this leads me to ask, of King Lear, what happens to Lear in the storm, after his daughters have shut their doors against him, and he, his Fool, and the loyal Kent (in disguise) are out upon the heath where “for many miles about, There’s scarce a bush.” At first, Lear is pure subjectivity, setting himself as a force of will against the will of the storm, daring it to do its worst. Later, in a moment of reprieve after the storm, he wears flows in his hair. Those flowers are believed by scholars to be one of Shakespeare’s few original stage directions; he seems to have meant something by those flowers. Eventually, after Cordelia’s armies have been defeated and she and he are being taken to prison, “We too will sing like birds i’th’cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down And ask thee forgiveness.” The distinctions on which all depended in Act I, majesty and fealty, loving or unloving, endowed with wealth or without dowry, have blurred. In the cage blurs with being at court, which is its own kind of cage. There is the briefest glimpse of a life beyond distinctions.

Of course this reprieve doesn’t last. At the end, all that matters to Lear is the distinction whether Cordelia lives or not. Alive or not is the last, crucial distinction. Taoism, Ch’an, Stoicism are all about getting us past that distinction; the blurring of the life/death boundary is perhaps the crucial moment of what we can call enlightenment, as a word merely standing in for what language cannot express, because language is the arising of distinguishing. The beyond-distinction can have no name. Things merely are: the moon, the river, the egrets, the fish. Mind merely mirrors them, without distinction.

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